Eel Fishing: Care for your Catch with the National Anguilla Club

The Angling Trust is proud to support the National Anguilla Club (NAC) ‘Lip Hook Your Eels’ Campaign. In this guest article, the NAC offer a look at safer angling practices to help conserve this fascinating species…

The freshwater eel, to most anglers their first encounter is usually in the form of a wriggling angry little elver, an accidental coming together that has them tied up in knots within seconds of catching it. An often, misunderstood fish and one many anglers wish to avoid. But there are those for which the eel has captivated them, fascinated by an enigmatic fish, drawn in by its mystery and uniqueness. A fish that has got under their skin and driven them to endure night after night sat in the still darkness of night waiting in anticipation for that specimen eel they dream of catching. These special fish can be found lurking beneath the surface of our lakes, canals and waterways, and can go undetected for decades. A fish that has a life journey so extraordinary that they should be respected by all anglers whatever their size and whether caught by accident or intention.

A specimen eel caught on the BM Twig method – Picture courtesy of Barry McConnell

For their life starts in the furthest depths of the mysterious Sargasso sea, their eggs, hatched into larvae drift for years on the ocean currents before they reach our European shores where they start to turn into tiny glass eels. They make their way up the estuaries and tributaries, rivers and streams growing into elvers and finding their way into canals, lakes, ponds and reservoirs having probably travelled overland at some point as well. So when you have your next encounter with an eel, just stop for a minute to think what a remarkable journey it has already made.

The growth rate of the eel is generally thought to be 1lb weight gain every 10 years… but this can vary with its habitat, so a water rich in natural food can see growth rates accelerate, but it is safe to say a 3lb eel is in excess of 25 years of age, so a larger specimen of say 6lbs will most likely be in excess of 50 years old. The UK record eel caught by Steve Terry in 1978 was 11lb 2oz, an enormous fish and estimated at 90 to 100 years old.

But many eels don’t grow to specimen size and after around 25 years most will make their epic return trip back to the far side of the Atlantic to mate and die, where their amazing life cycle begins again. How they manage to navigate thousands of miles with just their sensory intelligence we still can’t fully comprehend.

These fantastic creatures have to overcome many obstacles in their path, some man made obstacles are just too difficult for them to navigate and that’s where in recent years we’ve seen some fantastic construction work of ‘fish passes’ to allow migratory species such as the eel to access habitat further inland and allow them safe passage back when migrating.

However, sadly over the years their decline was so rapid and devastating that they were put on the red list by the IUCN and declared an endangered species. No one is certain why, but loss of habitat, the harvesting of glass eels and shifting ocean currents are all contenders for the cause of their decline. A decline that every angler that catches an eel can help prevent.

Here at the National Anguilla Club we are passionate about eels with decades of knowledge and experience in fishing for them. We identified that older methods such as the JS rig resulted in far more deep hooked eels, and in order to improve eel welfare we started the “Lip hook your eels” campaign.

The NAC campaign, the first since the late and great John Sidleys ‘Put eels back alive’ in the early 1990s highlights very effective methods of lip hooking eels. John Sidley, one of the most famous of all eel anglers would have relished the chance to be at the forefront of modern eel rig development.

His JS Rig now in excess of 40 years old is completely outdated, mainly due to its excessive length, which allowed the eel far too much free movement to swallow the hook before registering a bite. As time has passed, rig materials, components, tackle and technology have all improved and so has our knowledge to be better placed to identify and promote much safer eel fishing practices. With the eels vital organs just at the back of its head and its main artery at the back of its throat a deep hooked eel can be mortally injured and bleed to death slowly, dying days after capture. With this in mind and knowing what this fish has been through already, we want to be sure that when we catch and release these fantastic creatures back into the wild, they can continue safely and unhindered on their epic life journey.

Eel Anatomy. T = Truncus Arteriosus. This is the main blood vessel leaving the heart.

So for those targeting eels we recommend the following safe eel angling methods…

Method 1: The Resistance or semi fixed method

This is an ideal method when using maggots, worms and small pieces of prawn and small baits.

When fishing this method, you should keep the hooklink short, 5-6″ maximum, shorter if possible.  3-4″ is common on a harder lake bed. The semi fixed lead should typically be 3-4oz, or the lead can be substituted with a semi fixed inline maggot or worm feeder.

The hook must have an inturned eye which is really important to aid hooking in the bottom lip. Always use a barbless hook or crush the barb flat. Typical size hooks used are 6 and 8.

Fish this method with a bow string tight line to your baited rig, with sensitive bite detection. Delkim alarms are favoured and bobbins are required for bite detection with a 6-8 inch drop.

You can fish straight off the bait-runner using this method. But investigate every bite and strike early. Keep your bait small and compact, balance it with your hook size. A smaller bait will result in less missed runs and more fish on the bank.

Method 2: The BM twig method

The BM twig has been developed by Barry McConnell and field tested extensively by many eel anglers to refine it and make it 100% effective at lip hooking eels. It is a 100mm long by 3mm diameter acrylic rod or ‘twig’ attached to the trace in the fashion illustrated below.

You can substitute the acrylic rod for rigid tube, cut to the same size which you can thread the trace through.

It can be used with all baits such as worms, maggots and prawns as well as fish baits and small dead baits.

This method can be fished on a free running rig, typically with a 3-4oz lead, or attached to your trace when fishing a Dyson rig.

Fish the BM twig with a tight line and sensitive bite indication. You can fish straight off the baitrunner or use a rollover if preferred.

At first it may seem alien or unusual to us, fishing with something on the trace, but the eel routinely comes across many food items attached to twigs or debris on the lake bed and so when the eel picks up the bait, it thinks nothing of it finding it attached to a ‘twig’ which in turn prevents it swallowing it down immediately. A simple, yet highly effective method to lip hook eels.

Some previous methods such as the T Bar method proved to be ok with small eels but was not effective for bigger wide mouthed eels. So, we deter people from using this method as it was not 100% effective. The twig or semi fixed methods are much safer.

A note on accidental captures and deep hooked fish

If you accidentally catch an eel and the hook is out of sight, then we recommend you cut the line as close to the eels mouth as possible. With the location of its main artery and vital organs in that area, poking around trying to remove a deep set hook can be far more damaging or even fatal for the eel. They actually have a great ability to shed a hook, especially if it is a barbless one.


So please treat them with the respect they deserve, if you target them then please fish responsibly for the welfare of these fantastic age old and well-travelled creatures. They are far more than just a fish.

More information can be found at www.nationalanguillaclub.co.uk/liphookyoureels

And on Facebook using: #liphookyoureels

The National Anguilla Club

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